About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

Beware the Downside Risks of Tidying Up Your Finances in Preparation for Getting a Mortgage Loan

city illusIf you’re hoping to buy a home and finance it with a mortgage (as do 86% of homebuyers, according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2015 Profile of Buyers and Sellers), getting your finances in order is a good start. You’ll want to understand how much debt, income, and assets you really have, pay off minor debts at high interest that might be harming your ability to take on more credit, and be able to show that you’re a good risk for the hefty loan you’re about to apply for.

But don’t go too far! You can, according to mortgage banker Ken McCoy of Petaluma Home Loans, actually oversimplify your finances to the point that it hurts your credit rating and your ability to qualify for a mortgage at the lowest interest rate and on the most advantageous terms.

Let’s start with your job. If the pay isn’t great, you might be inclined to look for something better before buying a home. But, warns McCoy, “Changing your job can be a bad thing if it’s in a different line of work. The lender wants to see at least two years’ history in the same occupation, basically as a sign that you’re going to stay in that job for the long haul.”

Next, there’s the matter of your assets. Like many people, you may have a checking account at one bank, a savings account at another, and a CD somewhere else. Consolidation would certainly make it easier to know what you’ve got; but, says Ken, “You’ll be creating more, not less paperwork. Lenders want to be able to trace where all the money you’re using to buy a home came from, and you’ll end up having to supply statements from the accounts you closed, just to show the paper trail.”

Finally, there’s the all-important matter of your existing debt, including credit cards. McCoy says, “Prospective homebuyers tend to think about paying off their credit cards or getting rid of debt altogether. But realize that you may qualify for a mortgage with some existing debt; and if you pay it all off, you’ve just taken valuable money you needed for the home purchase transaction. What’s more, you can actually hurt your credit score by having no existing credit, or by closing credit cards you’ve had for years.”

Of course, nothing is cut and dried in this arena. There are certainly circumstances in which, for instance, taking a new job that pays much more would make sense. But how are you to know for sure? “Six months before you want to start looking for a home, sitting down with a mortgage professional would be smart,” says McCoy. And for more tips, check out the Affording a House section of Nolo’s website.

Widespread Outrage Over Suggestion That Children Represent Self in Immigration Court

bordermapCount me in as another voice within the chorus of shocked responses to senior immigration court judge Jack. H. Weil, who said during a deposition that three- and four-year olds can learn immigration law well enough to represent themselves in court.

This wasn’t just a casual comment; Judge Weil was addressing the issue of whether children facing deportation are entitled to attorneys at taxpayer expense. And let’s not forget that he trains other immigration judges nationwide, many of whom are hearing cases of immigrant children by the thousands.

Here are Weil’s words, as reported by the Washington Post: “I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds . . . You can do a fair hearing. It’s going to take you a lot of time.”

Darn right it’s going to take a lot of time. More time than immigration judges have these days, from all I’ve heard about their backlogged and overcrowded court dockets. And that’s not all it’s going to take.

How does one even begin to explain the reasons? Plenty of people have expressed doubt over Weil’s assertions, from experts like Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University, who told the Washington Post, “I nearly fell off my chair when I read that deposition” to Harry Shearer, as part of his political commentary on the March 6 version of “Le Show.” (Even my mother called me after reading the headlines!)

The first thing to bear in mind is that the United States has, under international and national law, an obligation to treat refugees differently (i.e. better) than other immigrants. And make no mistake, these children are mostly refugees, or people afraid to return to their home countries due to past persecution or the possibility of future persecution.

According to an American Immigration Council Report by Elizabeth Kennedy, NO CHILDHOOD HERE: Why central american children are fleeing their homes, non-economic factors such as organized crime, gang threats, and violence appear to be the strongest determinants for children’s decision to emigrate. Many try moving within their home countries first, and flee to the United States only as a last resort. They’re afraid.

video prepared for the Center for American Progress by Tom Jawetz, Philip E. WolginAndrew Satter, and Kulsum Ebrahim called “Why We Must Protect Central American Mothers and Children Fleeing Violence” points out that, as potential refugees, the Central American migrant children and families are legally entitled to due process. Yet they are receiving the very opposite: in many cases, a quick trip out the door.

The next key point is that asylum law is not only complicated, but fact-based and ever-evolving. I’ve represented many applicants in court whose cases seemed marginal at first.  It was only after spending hours (often over the course of many meetings) that I was able to understand the true basis of their fear of returning home and then analyze whether that fit into a ground for U.S. asylum.

Sometimes the answer was no. A child who, for example, is simply afraid of random street violence, is going to have trouble proving that he or she would be singled out for persecution. (See Asylum or Refugee Status: Who Is Eligible?)

But what if that child is a boy who is particularly effeminate, and who is commonly picked on by anti-gay gangs who are beyond the government’s control?  That could be a ground of asylum.  But do we really expect a small child to understand that distinction? Or to admit, in front of a judge and an attorney for the U.S. government, that people make fun of him for possibly being gay?

I doubt it. And that’s just one of many possible fact patterns. Every case is unique, just as every child is unique, and deserves to be heard individually rather than pushed through an overloaded system.

Buyer Desperation a Major Factor in Current Real Estate Market

buying-home-selling-your-houseI recently asked a Bay Area real estate agent about trends she’s observing in the current market. The first thing out of her mouth was the new need for her to understand buyer psychology as they learn the consequences of low housing inventory (fewer homes on the market than interested buyers).

No longer is it a simple matter of buyers figuring out how much money they have saved up and how much house they can thereby afford, doing a bit of shopping, and then closing on a home. Buyers must now often go through stages, an evolution driven by desperation as the weeks or months of shopping go on, and by experiencing flat-out “No” answers in response to their purchase offers.

The prospective homebuyer may start out telling the real estate agent, “I want a two-bedroom in this neighborhood and won’t pay a penny more than $X,” move on to saying, “Hmm, maybe we’d better bid higher given all the competition for this one-bedroom in a marginal neighborhood,” and end up at “Never mind the home inspection! Let’s double the asking price! We can’t wait any longer, we have to have that (tiny) house!”

This isn’t just a Bay Area phenomenon, either. The December projection from the National Association of Realtors says it all “Alas, Inventory Shortages Likely to Stay in 2016.” Relief isn’t reportedly in sight until the end of 2017, when Capital Economics researchers predict an inventory rise of around 50%.

According to economists at Zillow, this is even having an impact on the best time to sell a home. Zillow recently found that, nationally, homes that are put on the market in late spring (May 1 through May 15), sell around 18.5 days faster and for 1% more than the average listing. The explanation?

“The housing market today is heavily influenced by low inventory,” says Zillow chief economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “Faced with increasingly competitive markets, many buyers are forced to consider several homes and make multiple offers, elongating the home shopping experience.”

That’s good news if you are a home seller just starting to think about putting your home on the market for this spring! Not only has time not yet run out, but you might be just in time to pick up on the desperate buyers who’ve been out there for weeks and who just want a home, at any price.

New Home Sales Down as 2016 Begins; Could Word Be Getting Out About Risks of Poor Construction?

According to data gathered by Trading Economics, January of 2016 was a lousy month for sales of new single-family homes in the United States. Purchases were down 9.2% from December; the lowest figure in three months and well below predictions.

Meanwhile, Nolo just wrapped up an online survey of viewers, asking about their satisfaction with their newly purchased homes. Among those who responded, 74% had bought from a developer, and 25% had hired their own contractor.

But only 22% were satisfied with the quality of the construction. An overwhelming number–91%–have found home defects since buying, and 96% are contemplating legal action.

Uh oh. Now, it should be said that this was a small survey (fewer than 100 respondents), and anyone searching for information on Nolo is likely to have an existing reason for doing so, perhaps dissatisfaction with their home and questions about filing a lawsuit.

But it does fit a long-observed pattern within the real estate industry. “New” does not equal “risk-free” when it comes to a structure as complex as a home. In fact, with shortages of skilled labor, new homes can come with major defects.

To find out how to protect yourself as a buyer, see Newly Built Houses: Pros and Cons of Buying. And if you’ve already bought and are encountering defects, you’ll want to check out Nolo’s series of articles on Suing Your Home Builder: Legal Rights in Selected States.

Is There Time to Become a U.S. Citizen Before the November, 2016 Election?

American flag background - shot and lit in studio

While on the road today, I caught a snippet of a radio interview in which U.S. immigrants (presumably green card holders) discussed their eagerness to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship as soon as possible, in order to be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

That made me wonder: Is there time? Anything to do with the U.S. immigration bureaucracy tends to take weeks and months longer than it should. But let’s take the best-case scenario for an applicant who decides today, February 19, 2016, that he or she wants to apply. Let’s also assume that that person meets the basic citizenship criteria.

The first step would be to fill out the paperwork; no small task, because it not only involves filling out a form, but figuring out the dates of all one’s absences from the U.S. over the last several years, making a copy of one’s green card, having two passport-style photos taken, rustling up a $680 fee, and including any other relevant documentation (for example, proof of marriage to a U.S. citizen if applying after three years rather than usual five on that basis, or a medical report if claiming an exemption from the English or civics exam based on a disability).

And then the person would need to make a complete copy of the application and send it via a secure method, to protect against the all-too-real possibility that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will lose it.

Let’s assume that all of the above could be done in one week. The person would then need to mail the applications to a USCIS “lockbox,” which facility would then need to review and transfer the application to a local field office. That’s bound to take a few days right there.

Next, it becomes a matter of how quickly one’s local USCIS field office is moving. Applicants can check this on the “USCIS Processing Time Information” page, by choosing the appropriate office from the”Field Office” dropdown, then scrolling down to where it lists “N-400.”

Most offices are processing applications they received in July 2015, meaning it’s taking them seven months to interview the applicants. Los Angeles advertises only a five months’ wait. But it’s an eight months’ wait in Houston and Baltimore, and I didn’t check every field office, and the waiting periods can change depending on how many people apply at any given time.

Now let’s say the person attends the required in-person naturalization interview at a USCIS office, passes all the exams, and is approved for U.S. citizenship. That’s great, but it’s not the end of the process. First off, USCIS may not yet have received the results of the person’s fingerprint checks from the FBI and other sources, which can add weeks or months to process.

And no one becomes a U.S. citizen without attending the swearing-in ceremony. This, too, might be scheduled weeks or months after the person’s approval; though same-day swearing in is possible in some locations.

Oh, and let’s not forget actually registering to vote!

So, putting it altogether, and assuming that all goes smoothly, I’d guesstimate it would take approximately 8 1/2 months from today to successfully becoming a U.S. citizen. That’s almost exactly the amount of time left between now and the November presidential election.

If you’re hoping to apply, get moving on the process today!

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